Recently I started an Intensive Outpatient Program for people with eating disorders. In group therapy one of the care providers said that humans want 3 sorts of things, power and control, attention and acceptance, and security and certainty. Something along those lines, anyway. And she told us our eating disorder tries to provide one or more of these things, and thats why people feel they need their eating disorder. It fulfills a purpose for us. We then went on to do an activity to make a recovery toolbox filled with ideas for different ways to provide those needs for us.
I wondered why I couldn’t find these outside my eating disorder. Is it even possible for me, in the life I live? Living with depression and anxiety, I have less control over my emotions than most do. My eating disorder helps control my emotions. But my eating disorder also controls me. Acceptance is not something I usually foster in other people- more likely feelings of confusion, annoyance or disgust- and to deal with this lack, the eating disorder steps in again. Security in life.. until recently, I was stuck living with my hurtful and unpredictable mother while I struggled through high school. I didn’t feel secure in my home life, or in my academic work or future. My doctors and mother doubted whether I would graduate high school. My eating disorder provides security by giving me goals I know I can achieve and provoking emotions I can predict. But my eating disorder also creates insecurity by transforming the everyday tools of food and my own body into a landmine of triggers for my anxiety.
Its very clear that my eating disorder isn’t a good coping mechanism by these measures. Unfortunately my surroundings don’t give me a lot to work with. I have to learn to depend on myself, not my eating disorder- similar to how as I age, I have to learn to depend on myself and not my mother or a non existent community. Will I do that?
Thanks for the wonderful article. I am 36 years old and I still battle with so many of these things. Logically I know that I have met a lot of needs in those three areas and that I am no longer in an unsafe environment. But my inner landscape is altered permanently.
That is the part that is the hardest to overcome. When everything else is said and done, it is still a way of living that is honed through repetition and ritual. It is comforting, it is seductive, and it is hard-wired. It is what helped me survive so many years of abuse, neglect, and trying to find my own way through an uncertain world while also having to parent my parents and my siblings. I turned to other things as well; I am a recovered alcoholic of 8+ years, and an ex-smoker of 7 years. I was once addicted to sex. Now it’s just me and my eating disorder. I feel like it will always be a part of me, and it scares me, because I’ve been in eating disorder groups. I’ve seen people there in their 60s still battling disordered eating. I don’t want that to be me. I want to be free.
But I know that it has to be more than just meeting needs. It has to be about making it a priority, no matter what. It has to be about doing things on my terms, because as great as recovery is, it can also be really invalidating if you’re not one to tow the line (and let’s face it, I’ve always been a bit different).
One thing I learned, when I went through the eating disorder group a couple of years ago, was that there will always be mistakes, pitfalls, failures. That doesn’t mean *I* am a mistake. That doesn’t mean *I* am a failure. It means that I had a lapse in judgement and did the thing that was most familiar because I didn’t know what else to do. I learned something else in that group: the biggest thing that keeps me sick is shame. And as long as I am beating myself up over my life, my body image, or my perceived lack of control, how can I possibly get any better?
I am excited for you, as you embark on this new leg of your journey. One thing I have found is that change is so much different than I thought it would be. I’m Ms. Instant Gratification; I want it all now or it’s not good enough. But my eating disorder is so much less severe than it used to be. I’m accomplishing other things in life today. I’m healing other areas of life. Just for today, I have to maintain inner authority and make peace with the idea that it’s not going to come all at once, and be prepared to deal with setbacks, and enjoy every day for what it is, and stop blaming myself for things that are not, and have never been, my fault.
I hope you have a learning experience where you are going. I hope you get the tools you need. Life is a strange gig. We can only ever do our best. For people who grew up with an eating disorder, it’s a whole lot different out there.
thank you for commenting. i really hoped when writing this article (which i wrote in the spring, i’m out of the IOP program now) that once these ‘needs’ were met i would immediately recover, but i guess we’ll see whether that happens… as hopefully life goes as it has been going and my ‘needs’ start to be met.
i guess where what you said about immediate gratification comes in there. i also crave immediate gratification which makes recovery really hard as i find myself trying to find a method to ‘replace’ the quick relief of eating disordered behavior. i know that’s not a good way of thinking though.
i’m really glad you’ve made it so far in your recovery and i hope we both can keep fighting.